The Human Algorithm: Tips for Playlist Success on Spotify

The Human Algorithm: Tips for Playlist Success on Spotify

There is something we have as humans that is completely unique. Some animals have persona, but we as humans can have taste which is a unique phenomenon because it is at its core social. One becomes a tastemaker by adequately assessing the current collective preference and then broadcasting that into the future with a few tinges of personality. But you can never push too hard in any one direction at any one time because it would have made some uncomfortable.

Those days are over. It's still not easy to get plays, don't believe anyone that tells you it is, but it is no longer a matter of just appealing to the center. We now have the human algorithm, which is both more quirky and more democratic.

The Changing Tide

There is a site called hypemachine that indexes a large number of individual blogs; the idea is that if a number of blogs should feature the same song, the points will accrue and the song will go higher in the rankings. Spotify probably uses a similar ranking style, if they don't they soon will; what I think is interesting about hypemachine is that it is itself human-managed. I don't question for a second that behind the algorithm are humans making decisions that are not necessarily data driven, but emotional. And Spotify says the same about their editorial playlists:

Editorial playlists are created by our Shows & Editorial team, made up of music experts and genre specialists from around the globe. Their understanding of the right music for every moment is based on years of experience, and a careful understanding of listener habits and activities, likes and dislikes.
— Spotify

'a careful understanding of listener habits' is code for an algorithm print-out - we are all talking about human-modified computer output. And I think that's exciting. It used to be 10 or 20 people that make or break you; now it's the collective will. Computers will never be as good at classifying music as humans are.

Because that is what we do; we decide. We as humans are fantastic deciders. I don't think computers are going to catch us up on that any time soon; for humans deciding is easy. Computers not so much. So it makes sense that we are gravitating towards a human-managed, algorithm-heavy landscape. I think that means that music may access a lot more diversity.

I make playlists on Spotify, and I routinely look for songs that have very few plays so that I can both give them exposure and get the 'bump' from finding an artist early. So we have also created a landscape where the masses are eventually incentivized to pull up the little guy if he/she's got a track that can be marketed. I love that. People are trolling unplayed lists for the gem that we all missed. It is a very charged environment. But how to get involved? Where do you start?

I just made a playlist on Spotify that is close to 5000 followers and it's not even a week old. I seriously still don't know exactly how that happened, which is the hallmark of Spotify - create, and pray that the algorithm finds you; but I can share a few must-dos.

  1. Have a graphic. Pretty much all of the top playlists have pretty snappy graphics, but they are easy to do - hi res clip art, background color, big font text;

  2. Have a short snappy title.

  3. Have a consistent theme to the playlist.

  4. Update constantly - I was told not more than once week, no less than once a month.

And that is basically it. I can't really recommend playlist share sites like because they don't make much happen; I think if you run a website you might want to have an ongoing soundplate submission avenue because it drives clicks to your web site. What you really need is an active songlister who can craft a playlist around your song and then drive clicks to the playlist. That seems like a massive low-hanging fruit right now; playlists are all the rage and it is pretty easy to craft an amazing bunch of songs. If you have a historical context, all the better.

This playlist was crafted around a scene in Los Angeles about 10 years ago, and it must have been featured somewhere in the recommended playlists section on Spotify to gain so many followers so quickly. I will continue to update it and flip songs around for the included artists and I hope it will continue to gain followers.

Music writer and podcaster.

Creative Commons License
Creative Commons License